August 17, 1861 – In the North, both the government and the public stepped up scrutiny of anti-war sentiment this month, as wartime demands threatened constitutional guarantees.
On August 12, the New York Daily News published a list of 154 newspapers throughout the northern states that opposed President Lincoln’s war policies. Other newspapers quickly picked up the list and printed it themselves. Four days later, a grand jury indicted the Daily News along with the Day Book, Freeman’s Journal, Journal of Commerce, and Brooklyn Eagle on charges of disloyalty.
The grand jury, headed by Charles Gould, had been called to decide how to suppress pro-Confederate newspapers because they were “encouraging the rebels now in arms against the Federal Government by expressing sympathy and agreement with them, the duty of acceding to their demands, and dissatisfaction with the employment of force to overcome them.”
Jury members acknowledged that “free governments allow liberty of speech and of the press to their utmost limit,” but they contended that these newspapers exceeded that limit. The members stated, “If the utterance of such language in the streets or through the press is not a crime, then there is a great defect in our laws, or they were not made for such an emergency… the conduct of these disloyal presses is, of course, condemned and abhorred by all loyal men,” but the grand jury sought “to learn from the Court that it is also subject to indictment and condign punishment.”
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair issued orders declaring that “none of the newspapers published in New York city which were lately presented by the grand jury as dangerous, from their disloyalty, shall be forwarded in the mails.” Federal marshals at Philadelphia awaited the arrival of the New York train and seized all copies of the New York Daily News bound not only for Philadelphia but also for Washington, Alexandria, Annapolis, Baltimore, and Louisville.
Other newspapers suppressed by government decree included the Christian Observer for publishing an article calling the conflict an “unholy war.” Several newspapers in Canton, Ohio were also closed down for alleged disloyalty. Democratic newspapers became prime targets for government scrutiny.
Northerners seemed to support this suppression, as many people took action when government officials did not. Around 12:45 p.m. on August 12, an angry mob broke into the offices of the Bangor (Maine) Democrat, destroyed the printing presses, and burned the remaining office equipment in the street. The Democrat did not resume publication until 1863.
In Pennsylvania, Unionists invaded the offices of the Democratic Jeffersonian in West Chester and destroyed the printing presses, office equipment, and business records. Nobody was arrested or charged with the crime. A mob also attacked the Sentinel’s offices in Easton for allegedly expressing Confederate sympathies. The crowd threw the printing presses and other office equipment into the street and destroyed it.
In Massachusetts, a mob dragged the editor of the Essex County Democrat out of his Haverhill home. When he refused to cooperate with his kidnappers, “he was covered with a coat of tar and feathers, and ridden on a rail through the town.” He was forced to swear that he would “never again write or publish articles against the North and in favor of secession.”
On August 24, Unionists led by showman P.T. Barnum disrupted a “peace meeting” in Stepney, Connecticut. Both sides brandished pistols until Barnum invited any “secessionist” to speak out and be “given a fair hearing, provided they say nothing treasonable.” Since the term “treasonable” was left open for varying interpretations, no secessionists or Democrats accepted Barnum’s offer.
After the meeting, some 1,500 people stormed the offices of the Bridgeport (Connecticut) Advertiser & Farmer, which had printed editorials calling Lincoln a “despot” and accusing him of exceeding his constitutional authority, much like Republican newspapers had done when President James Buchanan was in office. No arrests were made for destroying the printing presses and business records; the newspaper went out of business.
People became targets along with newspapers. Secretary of War Simon Cameron ordered the arrest of Pierce Butler in Philadelphia for allegedly corresponding with Confederates. Federal marshals seized Butler and illegally searched his trunks, drawers, and papers. Butler was immediately sent without due process to confinement at Fort Lafayette, New York under armed guard. No formal charges were filed against him until he was eventually freed five weeks later.
Federal authorities also arrested several people in Washington for supposedly consorting with the enemy, including Mrs. Philip Phillips and Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Prominent Detective Allan Pinkerton apprehended Mrs. Greenhow. Meanwhile, Unionists broke up a meeting of alleged secessionists in Saybrook, Connecticut, and peace meetings at Middletown, New Jersey and Newton, Long Island, New York, were cancelled.
Unionist articles published in various newspapers helped to incite the masses against any opposition to the war. An example was an issue of Harper’s Weekly that contained a sketch of Confederate troops bayoneting wounded Federals on the Bull Run battlefield. This was the war’s first atrocity article, which alleged that “the savages who fought under the Confederate Flag systematically butchered the wounded, and this not only in obedience to their own fiendish instincts, but by order of their officers.”
The passions on both sides, along with enhanced government and public scrutiny of those who opposed the war, would continue to intensify in the coming months.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 498; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19648; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 69-70; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 110-12; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 23-30